I used to be fascinated by ancient Egypt and its stone temples dedicated to thousands of half-human, half-animal gods. How could anyone have ever believed in gods like that? Surely they must have all been completely crazy? Not like us cool, rational moderns living in the Age of Reason.
But these days I no longer think I’m living in any sort of Age of Reason. I think I’m living in a time that is as superstitious and credulous as any other in human history, and perhaps more so. It’s just that the crazy things that people believe now are different from the crazy things people believed back then. I’m not even sure there ever was an Age of Reason.
Take the various doctrines that flourished in the 20th century, not long before I was born. Socialism. Communism. Fascism. Nazism. Eugenics. And lots more. They were all different flavours of craziness, and they all crashed and spectacularly burned, often taking millions of lives with them.
But what are the new crazy doctrines of the early 21st century that have superseded them? Well, if you lived through the late 20th century, the one thing that you knew with the most perfect certainty was that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer. It’s probably the one single, universally-shared belief of the late 20th century. And if you lived in the early 21st century, you’ll have found that this absolute certainty had grown and expanded to become Smoking Causes All Diseases. And that’s why the global medical profession demanded – and got – draconian smoking bans everywhere in the world, to stop the “epidemic” of smoking. It’s no longer just that smoking causes disease, but that smoking is itself a disease. And now vaping too.
Another newcomer is the equally crazy belief, shared by millions, that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming. Nobody believed anything like this 25 years ago, and now suddenly lots of people believe it. Why? Because some climate scientists told them, and they trust experts. They let experts do their thinking for them. Which means they’re not thinking for themselves. Which means they’re not thinking.
And in Europe there’s the added crazy belief, again shared by millions, that if the nation states of Europe could be dissolved and merged together into a single superstate, there would never be – could never be – another war in the European continent.
Add to that environmentalism, the Green movement, feminism, gay rights, etc, etc, and you have a whole confection of beliefs that are as utterly crazy as any from the 20th century, or from ancient Egypt for that matter.
And if there is any shared characteristic of these various doctrines, it seems to be that they all start life as the innocuous suggestions of a very few people, which then become the fashionable beliefs of millions, before going on to become unquestionable certainties and iron dogmas which all must believe, and which nobody can be allowed to question.
And if there is a further characteristic of these doctrines, it also seems to be that as certainty in each of them grows, they provide their true believers with a complete and comprehensive vision of both the past and the future. They know which way history is going. They know the direction of the tide of human history.
A century or two from now, I have no doubt that people will look back in wonderment on our time just like I look back in wonderment at ancient Egypt. And they will ask how people could have possibly believed all these crazy things. Yet what people believe, in every era of human history, is always one sort of craziness or other. And it’s craziness that has grown from hesitant, uncertain origins into the most perfect and tyrannous certainty – like a thunderstorm or hurricane growing from a few faint zephyrs – before finally blowing itself out.
It never ends. It’s non-stop, never-ending craziness. It’s a different craziness each time, but it’s all still craziness.
I visited Egypt once, and stayed for two weeks in Luxor. And I roamed daily among its temples and tombs, armed with books of hieroglyph translations.
One day, when I was sitting on one of the sandstone blocks of the huge, sprawling ruin of the temple of Amun in Karnak, leaning back against a wall of sandstone hieroglyphs, a large insect with long wings and legs started buzzing in front of my face. I tried to bat it away, but it kept coming back. So eventually I shifted away from where I had been sitting – whereupon the insect alighted on the wall behind where I’d been sitting, and crawled into a crack between the stones. And as it did so, I recognised that it was probably the very same bee that was used as the hieroglyphic symbol for the kings of lower Egypt, and which was ubiquitous in the temple of Karnak.
A few days later, very near the same spot, I saw a falcon land on a lamp standard in the temple precinct. We watched each other closely for a few minutes, before it flew lazily away across the temple. Such falcons were symbols of the god Horus, and were as ubiquitous in the temple of Karnak as long-legged bees.
Above us in the sky on both days there shone the bright sun, the circular hieroglyph for which was the symbol of the sun god Ra.
The temple may have long been a ruin, and the religion that had erected it may have long been dead, but its gods – the bees and falcons – still survived, and still inhabited the temples in which they’d once been worshipped, and upon which the sun still continued to shine. The ancient Egyptians must have been intensely aware of all the many living things that surrounded them, and constructed an entire ecosystem of thousands of gods around them, with humans as their co-equals. They were naturalists, and their naturalistic religion simply recreated and reflected the natural world around them.
So maybe those ancient Egyptians weren’t quite as crazy as I once thought?